I have spent a good part of my life looking at the moon in awe. It was always thrilling to get a pair of binoculars or a telescope that allowed me to stalk the moon’s surface and imagine what size of meteor it was that crashed into it leaving the finger print of its collision and the sudden end of its journey through infinity.
Looking out into space takes my breath away and leaves me wondering how we got here and why it matters that we matter.
So when I watched the Mars landing my heart was in my mouth.
Some people are treating Mars as though it might prove to be a refuge in case we mess up the earth so badly that we need a back stop to survive. So there is talk about making Mars habitable in some way so that it can act as a refuge to humanity.
Presumably this would be the for 1% of ultra-rich who own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the rest of the world. There seems to be no recognition about the troublesome reality of human nature. Perhaps they would take their commitment to equality to Mars to help build a fairer society?
Maybe at the same time they would turn out to have found a way to kick humanity’s habit of polluting wherever we are?
No doubt they could escape our habit of polluting; especially strangling the oceans in plastic. But space is not a virgin eco zone. We have polluted space already.
In October 2019 the US Space Surveillance Network reported that we have littered the orbit above earth with 20,000 visible pieces of space junk. There are 34,000 bits larger than 10 centimetres and 900,000 sized between 1 and 10 centimetres. We have already turned space around our planet into a lethal junk yard. The International Space Station has been equipped with a shield to save it from small bits of lethal space junk and computers help it dodge bigger and more dangerous ones.
The problem, which the ‘would-be-escapee-Elon-Musk-rich’suffer from as much as the poor, is the self-destructiveness of human nature. We might conceivably be clever enough to land people on Mars one day who could theoretically escape the trashing of our earth, but they could not escape human nature and anywhere else we got to would get trashed as effectively as the Earth and the space around it. What about our penchant for violence and doing evil to our neighbours?
Mars and our ambitions to escape ourselves throw up some very testing questions about what human beings are doing in the universe, and how it is we seem caught in the middle between what we recognise as good and evil as creativity and destruction.
Much of the last one hundred and fifty years has been spent trying to create a different account about humanity without any God language. Are we just random accidents who happen to have consciousness and live by meaning in un unconscious meaningless universe? If so, how does that work? And why do we suffer depression and despair when life has no meaning?
For a while, we played with statistics and thought that the universe was so vast that there might be countless places where evolution could have produced human beings on other well-placed planets; as if making us cosmically commonmade the accidental bit easier to live with.
But researchers at Oxford university have accidentally putGod is back in the conversation.
They have recently run computer models suggesting that we may be unique after all.
They discovered that the time frame for intelligent life to evolve on a planet before its sun burnt itself out was narrower than we had thought. It took 4.5 billion years for life to evolve on this planet, and if it had been just a little slower it would have run out of time.
It turns out the expected transition times for evolution to produce intelligent life could easily have taken much longer. “This suggests that intelligent life is likely to be exceptionally rare,” they concluded.
There are only one billion years left before the sun’s luminosity will make the earth (and Mars) totally uninhabitable and put an end to any life here.
Even more oddly than this critical timing window, is the fact that there was nothing inevitable about evolution alone producing us
Some of our critical evolutionary transitions seem to have occurred only once in Earth’s history. They weren’t at allinevitable; which suggests making us the product of meaningless chance rather than an intelligent mindastronomically less likely.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that “if the ‘tape of life’ were to be rerun, ‘the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence’ would occur.”
Watching a spacecraft landing on Mars prompts me yet again to wonder with awe how we got here, why we want to escape from ourselves and why we are built to need meaning and purpose in our life, if the universe doesn’t contain any.
It reminded me of the first cosmonaut to enter space and return saying with bravado on behalf of his Russian atheist government that sent hgim there: “I have looked into the universe and I saw no God!” A well-read young peasant girl sent him a postcard. “Dear Comrade, I wasn’t surprised byyour observations. It was once wisely said “Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God.” (St Matthew 5.8)
Long before I was invited to evaluate people by who they were sexually attracted to, I came across Offa’s Dyke. It’s a wonderful set off earthworks that runs the whole length of Wales, marking the boundary between Wales and England. It stretches up to ten feet high and sixty foot wide in places. It’s very impressive. Continue reading “Internet censorship of free speech now delegated to inhuman computers who don’t get our language. More dystopia.”
It’s something of a privilege to write at the hinge of the year. But a challenge too. What a year to look back on; like no other for most of us. Since this is New Year, we want to look forward as well as back. Looking forward after the after the surprises and crushing turmoil of 2020 is tricky too. It’s not enough to just hope things get better. 2020 has shown us some important insights into our society.
Shakespeare in King Lear gruesomely warns against thinking you have hit the bottom and the only way is up. “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”.
But there is no point if catastrophising. The media is too easily given to thoughtlessly apocalyptic at the best of times and it’s not good for our mental health. Forecasting what might come has always been a tricky trade.
One way of trying to make things better is the New Year’s resolution. But I’m no fan of them.. They seem to me to the shortest way manageable to self-disgust and the late January blues. If human nature could be improved by simply trying harder, we would have cracked the how to be happy thing a long time ago.
What can we learn from the last 12 months of turmoil, illness, rage and confusion?
I don’t think the fact that we have suffered from the release of a new worldwide virus tells us much. We were warned that it was about time for a global pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918, and here it is. But our responses to it might be illuminating.
As it happens, I came down with it about 48 hours ago, and am trying to type through a fearsome headache, an annoying cough, and sharply painful limbs. One things that cheers me is are the stats published today that of the 45,466 people who died with Covid only 1,911 have died who had no pre-existing condition. In which case I’m hoping to live through to 2021 if nothing else changes.
But the response to Covid has raise some issues for us. If it’s true, as it is claimed that the average age of those who have died from Coronavirus is 81.5 and the average age of death excluding the virus is older, 82.4, it’s hard to understand the level of hysteria. One reason for it is that having lost faith in life after death, our secular rationalistic culture doesn’t handle death very well. Preparing for our deaths, making sense of them, is made very much more difficult without a world view that puts our lives in a broader context which includes life after death.
Beyond the alarm that being reminded of our deaths causes, other fractures are exposed.
Society is somehow split down the middle, with each side getting increasingly angrier over a range of different issues.
Perhaps Brexit should have warned us with its 52/48 divide. There are a number of ways to describe the opposing values, but ‘independence v safety’ might cover it. The Brexiteers wanted independence and were prepared to pay for it, and the Remainers wanted safety and stability and were prepared to forego autonomy to preserve it.
Something similar seems to be happening with the Covidvirus. Those who favour lock-down and masks want safety first, at almost any price, and are terrified by the illness. Those who protest against the state placing them under house arrest against their will want to be able to assess the risks for themselves and live accordingly. Safety v independence again.
What has struck me greatly is the way in which there has been such a contest over the facts and the science. The media (by and large) have been uniformly presenting a slant of the science and a version of the facts that have been intended to strike terror into the hearts of its audience. They have moved from sources of information to projects of propaganda. While at the same time the social media outlets have censored voices that present a different view of the science.
Of course, it wasn’t really science we were arguing about. Modelling what might happen is closer to magic than science.
I don’t see any harm in having two sides, two points of view (strung out across a spectrum) for people to choose between. What seems deeply dangerous is that most of the public and social media are controlled by statist/safety factions.
In 2021, I hope the hard working virologists will continue their astonishing work on finding an effective vaccine for the virus. But even more important, will be the need to find a way of vaccinating our culture against being content with cancelling people and silencing opposition voices.
I don’t think I can do anything to shore up the world-wide economic system against the damage done to it by international lockdowns; and I can’t do anything about the virus itself except not frighten people, by continuing to keep my distance and mask my face.
But all of us can do something to fight for freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to offend, freedom of conscience, freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Bring on 2021 and with it a determination to fight for our freedoms.